Tomorrow, improbably, I’ll be speaking in chapel at my alma mater. It’s the annual alumni chapel service and I guess Bryan Stevenson and Shane Claibourne, etc., weren’t available, so now they’re probably trying to figure out how to set up a three-second delay on the podium mic.
Seriously, though, this is a real privilege. The weekly chapel service at Eastern has always been entirely voluntary. Students don’t have to go, but they do. The auditorium was usually full back when I was a student there, and these days, apparently, they’ve outgrown the auditorium and hold chapel in the gymnasium. Gulp.
The theme for their chapel services this month is “What is the gospel?” That seems like it should be an easy question for us Christian types, and particularly for us evangelical Christian types who are all about sharing the gospel and spreading the gospel and preaching the gospel.
If you’d asked me that question when I was a gung-ho member of my church youth group as a teenager, I’d have been fully prepared to offer you a succinct, tidy answer. That answer likely would’ve involved me drawing something like the Navigators’ “Bridge to Life” illustration explaining the Good News that you were damned to Hell because God hates your sin, but that you could still be saved because God poured out all of God’s infinite hate onto Jesus instead of you, making possible the impossibility of divine mercy and allowing you to go to Heaven instead of Hell. The end.
Or I might have told you some variation of the same thing based on the Wordless Book I’d learned to use teaching VBS and Child Evangelism Fellowship classes, or the Four Spiritual Laws we’d trained in for Evangelism Explosion, or the “Romans Road” we’d memorized in Sunday school. I was primed and ready for someone, anyone, to walk up to me and ask, “What is the gospel?”
But no one ever did. This was a source of enormous frustration. It was also a source of enormous relief, because we’d often go out to proclaim our answer at people who hadn’t actually asked that question and that interaction tended to be excruciatingly awkward and anxiety-inducing for all involved. We knocked on doors. We stood on street corners. We passed out gospel tracts on the sidewalk or the boardwalk. It never went well.
Most people avoided us, correctly suspecting what we were up to. Those who initially failed to recognize that clearly looked trapped, annoyed, or frightened when they realized what they had walked into. “Oh, no, not this” their tightening eyes said when they realized why these polite young people had knocked on their door. They had been mentally prepared to maybe buy a few bars of band candy, not to encounter earnest strangers telling them they deserved an eternity of torture — somehow managing to smile as they said it. The sidewalk downwind of us would be littered with tracts dropped from the hands of those who had accidentally made unwary eye contact or who had gambled, and lost, hoping that we might be handing out fliers for a concert, or a new restaurant, or maybe a car wash for some worthy cause.
Sometimes the encounter could be redeemed by someone who maintained their composure enough to handle it with class. That happened once when we were doing “beach evangelism.” That meant passing out gospel tracts on the boardwalk in Asbury Park until everyone was saved or until we ran out of tracts (always the latter). I gave a tract to Marie Castello outside of the Temple of Knowledge. She said “Thank you,” in a way that reminded us all that this is the proper thing to do when a stranger offers you something, and she gave me a business card. Having learned a lesson there, I thanked her, and fled.
At the time, I regretted my failure to be more assertive and more aggressive in insisting that she listen to our message of salvation. Remembering this now, what I regret most is that I didn’t keep that card. Or ask her to sign it for me.
See, Marie Castello is kind of a legend in New Jersey. She’s the Madame Marie that Bruce Springsteen sang about in “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” and she was an institution there on the boardwalk — offering “Readings & Advice” at her Temple of Knowledge booth from 1932 until her death in 2008. When she died, flags in Asbury Park were flown at half-staff in her honor.
I left the Temple of Knowledge that day back in 1984 or ’85 without ever seizing the chance to tell her how Jesus bridges the chasm between sinful humans and a holy God. I didn’t stick around to explain that she could be saved by praying the prayer in which she tells God the three things God apparently needs to hear us say to complete the transaction of salvation. I never gave her the answer I had back then to the question “What is the gospel?”
And that means — according to the logic that compelled us to go out there knocking on doors and passing out tracts — that she may have died unforgiven and unloved by a holy God who is incapable of tolerating sinful humans. And if that’s true, we believed, if she never prayed that prayer and told God those three things, then Marie Castello is now suffering an eternity of conscious torment in Hell. And we were supposed to believe she deserved that.
One of the many problems with all of that was that it required us to believe that Bruce Springsteen is greater than God. And even those of us who are from New Jersey don’t quite want to say that’s true. We will concede, if pressed to do so, that the Boss is mortal and finite, fallible and flawed (see, for example, Human Touch). So we know that Bruce Springsteen cannot be capable of a greater love and a greater mercy than God is capable of.
If there is a God, then that God, being God, must be capable of a greater love than any mortal. If there is a God, and if that God is not monstrous, then that God must be capable of loving Madame Marie at least as much as Bruce Springsteen did.
All of which means that I no longer answer that question — “What is the gospel?” — the way I would have answered it as a teenager back in church youth group. I no longer believe that the starting point of the gospel is our separation from a monstrously holy God incapable of love without demanding payment in blood. I believe that the starting point of the gospel is Jesus. And the ending point, too.
So tomorrow, when I get up there to talk about “What is the gospel?” I’m going to talk about Jesus, the central figure of those books we call “Gospels.” And I’m going to suggest that one way of answering the question “What is the gospel?” is to look at the sequel to one of those books, the book of Acts, which shows us what it looks like when Jesus’ followers start living the gospel. So we’re going to talk about Pentecost and about Philip in Samaria, and Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Peter and Cornelius, and anybody there who reads this blog will easily recognize that I’m recycling much of the same stuff I’ve written about here for years.
Anyway, regular posting here tomorrow may be interrupted a bit, but it should resume Thursday. In the meantime, I have to go whittle what seems to be a 50-minute talk into the allotted 25 minutes. This will likely involve cutting most of the jokes. Tomorrow, when I hear my voice start to get shaky, I will nervously reinsert all of those jokes, leaving out everything else before rushing through the ending. (That’s the pattern, at least. I’ve heard myself speaking in public before and that’s usually how it goes.)